In Emilio Estevez’s film The Way, Californian ophthalmologist Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) travels to the Pyrenees to recover the body of his son who died in a freak storm while walking the Camino de Santiago.

Instead of returning home immediately, Tom decides to complete his son’s journey on the Way of St. James. While walking the Camino, Tom falls in with pilgrims from around the world. In particular, Tom finds himself engaging with three others, each carrying an experience of grief and pain and looking for fresh meaning and purpose. None experiences a straightforward religious conversion, but each changes during the journey. Tom finds there is a difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”

Legend holds that the mortal remains of St. James (martyred circa A.D. 44) were transported by boat to northern Spain and buried in Santiago de Compostela. A network of roads and paths in Spain and northern France converge on the site. It has become one of world’s most popular destinations for pilgrims, not least gap-year millennials.

Growth among those taking the journey has prompted the Church of England to send chaplains to assist pilgrims in their spiritual search. The Rev. Alastair Kay, a priest from Derbyshire, came up with the idea after making the journey during a sabbatical. He has been joined by priests from Australia and Canada.

“There is a spirituality amongst millennials,” Kay told The Daily Telegraph. “They wanted to talk about prayer, they wanted to talk about spiritual experience, they wanted to talk about Jesus.”

Many are not explicitly Christian but want to find spirituality in and through nature.

Santiago de Compostela has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times. Its popularity waned in the 1980s, but recently there has been resurgence of interest, with 300,000 making the journey last year. They are people of widely varied ages and backgrounds.

The Roman Catholic Church has long had chaplains in Santiago de Compostela and is supporting efforts by other Christians, including Anglicans, to provide services and spiritual support to English speakers.

In June, Kay will join a priest from Canada who has been on-site for 12 weeks. There is a lull during summer, but autumn sees renewed traffic. Chaplains will fill two-week rotas celebrating Sunday Eucharists and praying with individuals and groups.

The Ven. Geoff Johnston, Archdeacon of Gibraltar, supervises the project. “Some people are still searching for some spirituality in their lives,” he said. “Sometimes the traditional church doesn’t resonate with them, but other things could help them to become closer to some kind of spiritual life, and to God, and taking part in a pilgrimage makes them think about what life is about.”

John Martin

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